Tell it to Sun.Star: Best transport scheme for Cebu

IN my recent talk at the Sustainable Urban Development Roundtable Discussion of the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc.–Eduardo Aboitiz Development Studies Center (Rafi-EADSC) on Friday, July 29, I prefaced my remarks by admitting that I know practically nothing about Cebu so I could not give a definitive answer when asked what the best transport scheme for the area should be. My remarks were intended to be generic in nature.

However, since my remarks have become part of the dialogue on Cebu’s future mass transit development, I would like to clarify my position.

Firstly, I was not criticizing the work of the Cebu Rapid Bus Transit Project; as someone who has been on the other end of this type of situation (I was involved in the Bangkok mass transit planning as Senior Urban Planning Advisor to the Thai Government for many years), I know how annoying it is to have outside “experts” pop in for short periods of time, and give advice.

For those who were at the event, I emphasized the imminent need for Cebu to have a rapid transit system as soon as possible, which would be a BRT, LRT, or heavy rail, or a combination of the foregoing. In fact, Cebu, with a metro population of approximately 2.8 million people, lags behind other cities in East Asia in rapid transit.

I made the point that since mass rapid transit systems last for at least a hundred years (London’s subways, dating from Victorian times, are still operating), and thus should be financed over a long time span, one should think ahead in terms of mode, and future population – Metro Cebu is forecast to have 5 million people by 2050.

Manila obviously made a grave mistake in installing LRT rather than MRT – the current Manila system cannot cope with demand. Learning from Manila and elsewhere, Cebu, should consider LRT (same capacity as BRT but more attractive to riders), or even heavy rail (with twice the capacity), for the priority (“cash cow”) routes (Toronto and several other cities built heavy rail systems when their populations were smaller than Metro Cebu today), although I do not know enough about the Cebu situation to make specific suggestions.

Assuming BRT is the choice, it will only be effective if it is designed properly. This means:

(i) At least two lanes in each direction should remain in operation after the BRT is installed. It may be more cost-effective to elevate the BRT above the existing roadway, in which case only one lane (or none) will be lost and land acquisition costs are lower. Unattractive cement structures can be replaced with high tensile steel supports to improve aesthetics, if that is an issue.

There is little to be gained if current road capacity is significantly reduced; like it or not, vehicle use on main arteries in Cebu will continue to rise.

(ii) Very important, BRT bus lanes must be protected by impenetrable (by other vehicles) walls throughout their entire route otherwise the BRT investment will be a complete waste of money. Buses will be slowed and bunched in areas where the bus lanes are not protected, e.g., suburban areas, and lost to rapid frequent service.

I am assuming that other state-of-the-art BRT components are already part of the project, e.g., passengers will buy tickets in stations before boarding buses at the same level, etc. If not, such design should be implemented.

(iii) The BRT system should be upgradable to LRT in the future.

(iv) In the longer run, different modes should be used as part of a comprehensive system. For example, you would not want an LRT line to serve the whole 60 km linear metro region for efficiency reasons. Rather, you might want heavy rail for the most routes with the highest forecast demand (essentially the currently planned BRT network), then LRT and BRT differentially used for longer suburban and peri-urban routes.

It was a pleasure visiting Cebu, and I thank University of San Carlos and Rafi for giving me a chance to learn from Cebu’s vibrant metro planning process.--by Douglas Webster, Professor of East Asian Urbanization, Arizona State University, USA

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